The Olympics

This was written for for the January 2020 edition of The Monthly Milestone  which never appeared as the world was changing so fast that we couldn’t keep up! Even without the Olympics though, 2020 will always be an Olympic year and this has not been edited it since it’s original draft in January.

I am a massive fan of the Olympics. Why? It’s all about what they represent.

Let me start by boring you with some stuff from the 1980s.

My first memory of the Olympics was that grainy beyond-the-Iron-Curtain broadcast of the 1980 Moscow games with Allan Wells benefiting from the Cold War driven USA boycott to win the 100m gold medal (left), and the epically exciting battles of Coe and Ovett in the 800m and 1500m captivating us with their topsy-turvey results. I can remember creating a running track, complete with field events, on multiple pieces of plain paper sellotaped together. I used a compass to draw the bends and Lego men as athletes competing for countries based on the colour of their plastic bodies and legs. Yes, Lego men, compasses and sellotape all existed in 1980 – high definition TV did not.

Allan Wells dipping for glory

Now fast forward to 2012 and that boyhood magic was brought to real life by the London games. I lucked out in the ticket lottery securing tickets for all sorts of events – handball, table tennis, water polo, swimming, hockey, basketball and of course a couple of fantastic nights in the stadium watching the athletics – and I loved it.

Despite what you may now believe about the legacy of those games, and the doping afflictions that we now know surrounded many of the performances, those games and the way people responded to them was as magical as my makeshift running track and got me thinking about how and why the Olympics is so special and why it drove me to create The Milestone Pursuit (a post for different rainy day!).

For me, its actually pretty simple. It’s all about the values, and in particular the sense of enormous pride that comes with the reward from the years of hard work and dedication that the mostly amateur athletes – people with other jobs – put in to become an Olympian. Whether they are standing on a podium or just on the start line, you know that every Olympian is carrying enormous pride.

In an increasingly commercial and professionalised world, where win at all costs mentalities are prevalent (perhaps this is something that will change as consequence of the coronavirus crisis?), things are a little different from the Moscow (and before) era of genuine amateurism and the curmudgeonly among us may even say how people like Ben Johnson have undermined the values or how Olympic legacies are tainted by profligacy and the famously redundant venues in places like Athens and Rio but in my mind that doesn’t diminish from what the Olympics are trying to achieve and what we can take from them.

Like many organisations in the world, the Olympics has a cacophony of values missions, symbols and mottos. To understand more about why the Olympics resonates with me, I looked at them in more detail.

The Olympic symbol (the 5 rings) expresses the activity of the Olympic Movement and represents the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games. Show anyone the Olympic rings and they recognise them immediately – what would a brand owner pay for that – but the precise order of the them, and even what the colours actually are is less important, its what they represent about unity that’s important, the fact they are linked. We are all in it together.

What about the motto?

First what even is a motto? According to the Cambridge English Dictionary a motto is a a short sentence or phrase that expresses a belief or purpose. The Olympic motto is made up of three Latin words: Citius, Altius, Fortius which translates as Faster, Higher, Stronger.

These three words, together, are simply designed to encourage athletes to give their best during competition but also reflect the need for humans to seek progress in all aspects of our existence. There is no word of winning in there, and some say that Olympianism is about taking part rather than winning, and to an extent that is true but it also misquotes what the Olympic movement defines as it’s creed;

“The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”

This really resonates with me. I have always enjoyed sport, I have always tried to improve and while at times in my youth, I may have taken defeat hard, especially in individual sport, I have come to realise that the thing I enjoy most is the competition, and the sense that people and teams are pushing each other to new heights, heights that you may not previously have thought possible.

The creed is credited to Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, but he himself took inspiration for it from a speech given to athletes by the Bishop of Pennsylvania, Ethelbert Talbot, during the Games of London in 1908. And so we’re back to London again…..

BUT the thing that resonates the most for me is the Olympic values – Excellence, Friendship, Respect. These are less well known than any of the above; 

“Excellence means doing the best we can, on the field of play or in our professional life. The important thing is not winning, but taking part, making progress and enjoying the healthy combination of body, will and mind.”

Excellence is about how hard we try, not the outcome. It is in the pursuit of excellence (and milestones) that we reach new ground / new territory, challenge ourselves and develop and grow. We may not always reach the ultimate milestones, just as few of us will ever become Olympians, but that doesn’t matter, it’s the journey that a pursuit of excellence takes you on that provides the value, the experience and the joy. 

You may not reach your running goal or your career goal (not everyone can be a CEO for example) but that doesn’t matter, its the journey that the pursuit takes you on that is important. Remember though, not to confuse the pursuit of excellence with the pursuit of perfection. 

Respect is about “respect for yourself and your body, for other people, for rules and regulations, for sport and for the environment”. No pressure then. In businesses this value might be described as “responsibility” or doing what’s right. That’s hard to do. You can’t always do the right thing, we all have weaknesses, we all have saboteurs. Often we focus too much on what we’re not so good at, when forgiving yourself for that and focusing on being EVEN better at what you’re good at might be a more rewarding route to success. Respecting yourself therefore isn’t about being perfect, it’s about being kind to yourself. As you go through this year, forgive yourself for being cross with someone when it was actually your fault, forgive them for the same, forgive yourself for missing the odd run, but put it right next time. 

“Friendship is at the heart of the Olympic Movement. It encourages us to see sport as an instrument for mutual understanding between individuals, and between people all over the world.” Competing with people does not preclude their friendship, in fact it can drive it. The best, deepest friendships come from shared experiences and in sport we often share experiences with people that others cannot begin to understand. Take time to acknowledge that. The best example of this for me is the finishing line experience in running. In team sports it is customary for players from opposing teams to shake hands at the end, to congratulate one another, to complement one another, to jibe one another and to celebrate together, win or lose. My experience in running is that this often gets missed. Shake hands with people after your race, congratulate them, thank them for the race. It often amazes me how little this is done. My favourite example is from the 2019 Folkestone half marathon, which was run in crazily windy conditions – in the headwind section of the out and back course, I caught up with a solo runner that had been dropped by a group ahead. He then drafted behind me for the next 4 miles, all into a 50 mph wind so strong that I was running about 2 mins per mile slower than my half marathon pace while at half marathon heart rate. When we ran downwind, I picked up the pace and he fell away. By the end i was a few minutes ahead of him. Exhausted, I stopped at the finish line to recover and once he finished he walked straight past me to meet a club-mate, without so much as looking me in the eye. I know I beat him, and I know he was probably exhausted too, but he drafted off me for about a third of the race which he deemed worthy of not so much as a thank you or a well done. Hardly Olympian……anyway, rant over. You get the message, be the one that approaches your competitors, acknowledge their effort, celebrate their success, be Olympian about it. 

So, as you watch this year unfold, and as you watch the Olympics judge for yourself whether the current crop of Olympians, British and beyond carry those values, and judge the value of the Olympics accordingly for its not about the outcome it’s about the way you behave. Not everyone can be an Olympian, but everyone can act like one.

Seems fitting for 2020, with or without the Olympics.

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